Thursday, November 26, 2015
SCC Ruling in CBC v SODRAC: Per Rothstein J.: “I find that licences fixed by the Board do not have mandatory binding force over a user…”
The Supreme Court of Canada issued an immensely important ruling today in the case of Canadian Broadcasting Corp. v. SODRAC 2003 Inc., 2015 SCC 57 , which was mostly about technological neutrality, “ephemeral rights” and “incidental copies” in the broadcasting realm. However, while others are attempting to unpack the implications of this ruling on technological neutrality, broadcasting, etc., there are about a dozen paragraphs of potentially very great interest and significance to those, such as educators, who are concerned with even broader issues about whether tariffs can be “mandatory” and whether a collective or the Board can “impose” a licence or royalty fees on an unwilling user, and even whether and to what extent tariffs can be retroactive. I should disclose that I was the Counsel for the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy of McGill University (headed by Prof. David Lametti, now David Lametti, M.P.) and Prof. Ariel Katz of the University of Toronto, both of whom appeared with me at the hearing. , which is closely reflected in these paragraphs from the 7-2 majority reasons by Rothstein J., who has now retired from the Court:
(2) The Board May Not Compel a User to Agree to the Terms of a Licence Against the Will of the User
(101) CBC argues that, while the Board may fix the royalties to be paid under the statutory licensing procedure created by s. 70.2 of the Copyright Act, the Board may not set the other terms or structure of that licence. Specifically, CBC takes issue with the Board’s decision to impose an interim licence on a blanket basis, such that CBC pays for access to the entire SODRAC repertoire, rather than on CBC’s preferred transactional basis, whereby CBC would pay only whenever it actually used a work from the SODRAC repertoire. A blanket licence grants access to SODRAC’s entire repertoire for its duration, and thus reduces CBC’s ability to control its licensing costs. Under a transactional licence, by contrast, CBC may choose in any given situation whether it wishes to licence a particular work or forego making use of SODRAC music. CBC argues that if the collective organization and the user disagree over the model a licence is to take — blanket or transactional — the Board lacks the power to compel the execution of a licence.
(102) SODRAC counters that the Board has the power to issue licences in either blanket or transactional form, and should have this power in all proceedings under s. 70.2. To hold otherwise, it argues, would be “to make the Board’s remedial jurisdiction under section 70.2 dependent upon the consent of a user, [and] would be at odds with its mandate to resolve disputes”: R.F., at para. 133.
(103) Though CBC first raised this issue in the context of the Board’s Interim Licence Decision, the dispute relates generally to the Board’s power to structure licences, whether interim or not: Does the Board’s power to set the terms of a licence include the power to bind the parties to those terms?
(104) I do not read the Copyright Act to necessitate that decisions made pursuant to the Board’s licence-setting proceedings under s. 70.2 have a binding effect against users. Section 70.2 itself provides that where a collective organization and a user cannot agree on the terms of a licence, either party may apply to the Board to “fix the royalties and their related terms and conditions”: Copyright Act, s. 70.2(1). This grant of power speaks of the Board’s authority to set down in writing a set of terms that, in its opinion, represent a fair deal to licence the use of the works at issue. It says nothing, however, about whether these terms are to be binding against the user.
(105) The statutory context supports the conclusion that licences crafted pursuant to s. 70.2 proceedings are not automatically binding on users. Section 70.4 of the Act provides:
70.4 Where any royalties are fixed for a period pursuant to subsection 70.2(2), the person concerned may, during the period, subject to the related terms and conditions fixed by the Board and to the terms and conditions set out in the scheme and on paying or offering to pay the royalties, do the act with respect to which the royalties and their related terms and conditions are fixed and the collective society may, without prejudice to any other remedies available to it, collect the royalties or, in default of their payment, recover them in a court of competent jurisdiction.
(106) This provision makes it clear that a user whose copying activities were the subject of a s. 70.2 proceeding may avail itself of the terms and conditions established by the Board as a way to gain authorization to engage in the activity contemplated in the Board proceeding. The language of s. 70.4 does not, of its own force, bind the user to the terms and conditions of the licence.
(107) The conclusion that Board licences established pursuant to s. 70.2 are not binding on users comports with the more general legal principle that “no pecuniary burden can be imposed upon the subjects of this country, by whatever name it may be called, whether tax, due, rate or toll, except upon clear and distinct legal authority”: Gosling v. Veley (1850), 12 Q.B. 328, 116 E.R. 891, at p. 407, as approved and adopted in Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Assn. v. Ontario (Attorney General), 2001 SCC 15,  1 S.C.R. 470, at para. 77, and Attorney-General v. Wilts United Dairies, Ltd. (1921), 37 T.L.R. 884 (C.A.), at p. 885. To bind a user to a licence would be to make it liable according to its terms and conditions should it engage in the covered activity. In the absence of clear and distinct legal authority showing that this was Parliament’s intent, the burdens of a licence should not be imposed on a user who does not consent to be bound by its terms.
(108) SODRAC’s framing of the issue is not entirely wrong: the Board does have the power under s. 70.2 to “fix the royalties and their related terms and conditions”. That is, the Board may decide upon a fair royalty to be paid should the user decide to engage in the activity at issue under the terms of a licence. However, this power does not contain within it the power to force these terms on a user who, having reviewed the terms, decided that engaging in licensed copying is not the way to proceed. Of course, should the user then engage in unauthorized copying regardless, it will remain liable for infringement. But it will not be liable as a licensee unless it affirmatively assumes the benefits and burdens of the licence.
(109) The matter is complicated considerably by the fact that the Board’s statutory licence decisions have, in recent years, taken on an increasingly retroactive character. CBC’s statutory licence in this case provides an example: the licence covers the period from November 2008 to March 2012, but the Board’s final decision was issued on November 2, 2012, after the term of the licence had expired. In situations like these, the Board may issue interim licences that seek to fill the legal vacuum before the final decision is ready, but this leaves a user to operate based on assumptions about how their ultimate liability for actions taken during the interim period will be evaluated.
(110) Should a user engage in copying activity under an interim licence, and then find itself presented with a final licence whose terms it would not voluntarily assume, the user is left in a difficult position: accept the terms of an undesirable licence, or decline the licence and retroactively delegitimize the covered activity engaged in during the interim period, risking an infringement suit. This dilemma may mean that a user who operates under an interim licence has no realistic choice but to assume the terms of the final licence.
(111) While I find this possibility troubling, I do not find that this result would detract from the more general proposition that there is no legal basis on which to hold users to the terms of a licence without their assent. The licence is not de jure binding against users, even if the particulars of a specific proceeding, and a user’s decision to engage in covered activity during an interim period, may mean that the user does not de facto have a realistic choice to decline the licence.
(112) I conclude that the statutory licensing scheme does not contemplate that licences fixed by the Board pursuant to s. 70.2 should have a mandatory binding effect against users. However, this case does not require this Court to decide whether the same is true of collective organizations. It may be that the statutory scheme’s focus on regulating the actions of collective organizations, and the case law’s focus on ensuring that such organizations do not devolve into “instruments of oppression and extortion” (Vigneux v. Canadian Performing Right Society Ltd.,  S.C.R. 348, at p. 356, per Duff J., quoting Hanfstaengl v. Empire Palace,  3 Ch. 109, at p. 128) would justify finding that the Board does have the power to bind collective organizations to a licence based on the user’s preferred model — transactional or blanket — on terms that the Board finds fair in view of that model. However, this issue was not argued in this case.
(113) I find that licences fixed by the Board do not have mandatory binding force over a user; the Board has the statutory authority to fix the terms of licences pursuant to s. 70.2, but a user retains the ability to decide whether to become a licensee and operate pursuant to that licence, or to decline.
 During the hearing before this Court, counsel for the interveners the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy and Ariel Katz briefly raised concerns regarding the Board’s power to issue retroactively binding decisions in general. That issue was not squarely before this Court in this case, and I do not purport to decide broader questions concerning the legitimacy of or limits on the Board’s power to issue retroactive decisions here.